Book: Leavenworth Train

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Leavenworth Train: A Fugitive's Search for Justice in the Vanishing West

Author: Joe Jackson
Publisher: Carroll & Graf Publishers

This gripping book brings alive a daring prison escape and a relentless twenty-four-year manhunt that pitted desperate inmates against their keepers, the citizenry of Canada against the American brand of justice, and one man against his pursuers and the demons of his past. It is 1910, the waning days of the Old West. The Pinkertons and the hard hand of federal law enforcement have corralled most of the region’s fabled outlaws. Into this world steps Frank Grigware, who at age twenty sets out to find gold in Idaho. Yet, he chooses his friends poorly, and is convicted of a train robbery he had no hand in. Sentenced to life in the first federal penitentiary, Leavenworth, he joins five other prisoners in hijacking a supply train and ramming it through the joint’s west gate. Joe Jackson retraces Grigware’s flight through the American prairie, across the Canadian frontier, and into a new life where he became a husband, father, and mayor of a small town. The FBI tracked Grigware through the 1920s and ‘30s, finally reaching across the border to locate him in the mountains of Alberta. When American justice demanded his extradition, Canada’s response was surprising: This is the sort of man we want settling our land. An international incident ensued with the two countries’ values pitted against each other, and Grigware in the middle. Jackson’s narrative ends with a surprising twist, showing that justice is capricious, the servant of time, place, and ambition, yet tempered by the mercy of women and men.


Renowned for violence and lawlessness, the American frontier was in reality a safe and orderly region, at least by 19th-century standards. Alcoholism and suicide were persistent troubles, and, to be sure, the occasional murder or crime against property troubled the populace. Still, such things did not happen often, and when they did, justice was swift and punishment severe.

Frank Grigware, the protagonist of Joe Jackson’s swift-moving Leavenworth Train, learned all this the hard way. Not particularly bright, plagued by hard luck, the young man devoted himself to petty thievery, scratching out a dishonest living in the rough mining towns of the Northwest. His fortunes turned still worse when he fell into the company of a gang of suspected train robbers. Charged as an accomplice to their crimes on what Jackson considers to be less than solid evidence, he was packed off to the Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary to serve a long sentence. He didn’t remain behind bars for long, however. He and three fellow convicts escaped by hijacking a supply train, and Grigware kept running until he reached Canada, where he took up residence and lived out a long life. His identity was eventually revealed, and American officials—among them J. Edgar Hoover—demanded to have him returned.

To reveal who won would spoil Jackson’s story. In telling it, Jackson relies heavily on imagined dialogue, and his prose is sometimes overly mannered (“instead of a cave of gold, they found a grimy cell,” “everyone danced Death’s crazy reel”). Still, his tale is full of unlikely twists that keep it moving along nicely, and fans of Western history and true crime alike will enjoy reading it. —Gregory McNamee

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